SUN Hockey Pool

NHL Notes

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

All those lean years in Anaheim - missing the playoffs in near-empty buildings for seven of their first nine easons while everyone made fun of their goofy nickname - are just vague rumours to Rob Niedermayer.

All he's known since landing in Duck Country is success. They made the Cup final in his first year there, the conference final in his third, and could go all the way again this season. His brother Scott signed, then Chris Pronger signed. The Ducks are virtually unstoppable. Life is good.

"It's been very good,'' grinned Rob Niedermayer, who watched his brother notch his 1,000th game.

"We were already coming off a pretty good year, and then getting Prongs ... it's nice to be in our position right now.

"But that's one thing about this group - nobody is content because we haven't done anything yet. You don't win anything in the first couple of months.''

WALL STREAK?

He used to be one of the biggest busts in hockey (3.35 GAA, .886 save percentage and just 50 starts in the first year of his $6.75 million contract in Chicago), but Nikolai Khabibulin has pulled his career out of a terrible tailspin.

The Bulin Wall (2.40, .912) is just three wins shy of his total for all of last season (17). While Tampa Bay still hasn't recovered from their divorce, the Russian tender is getting on with his life.

"He's a proud guy and he came back in great shape this year,'' said Hawks GM Dale Tallon. "He was determined. He's lighter, quicker, more confident, all those things.

"You look at the teams who are successful, it all starts with the goaltender.''

WE TALKIN' 'BOUT PRACTICE, MAN

Anyone who played with Wayne Gretzky will tell you that as great as he was in the games, some of the jaw-dropping stuff he did in practice was even more impressive. Penguins GM Ray Shero says it's the same way with Sidney Crosby.

Allen Iverson, he ain't.

"It's incredible watching him in practice, you can see why he's so improved from last year," said Shero. "He's an amazing practice player. He has a purpose. He pushes himself to the limit to get better.''

A NUMBERS GAME

It doesn't make sense, because the Sharks have been a good team for a long time, but you should remember it for Pro-Line: San Jose has only won three times in 29 visits to Joe Louis Arena ... Also take this into consideration: The Dallas Stars are 24-14-0, but only 13-12-0 over the last 25 after an 11-2-0 start. In December, they averaged just 2.15 goals per game (28th in the NHL) ... Let's hear it for Blues coach Bryan Murray, who's no fan of the pointless NHL tradition known as the morning skate. "I think morning skates are the most overrated thing in hockey,'' said Murray, who makes them optional ... Ilya Kovalchuk: part iron-man, part loose cannon. The Thrashers star has only missed six games over the past four seasons, none of them to injury. Two were discipline-related scratches, one was a suspension for throwing his stick into the crowd and three were due to a holdout.

DEAL OR NO DEAL

Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong is one of about 30 GMs who feels handcuffed by a salary cap that makes it virtually impossible to swing any deals of substance. "It's just hard to make moves in the league,'' he said. "Up until these last few Philadelphia trades (Mike York and Alex Zhitnik), I don't think any trade was made for a player playing more than 10 minutes a night.'' ... Apparently there is such a thing as a free lunch. The Blues announced Tuesday that during the first two periods of their Jan. 13 matinee with L.A., the concession stands will be offering free food. It's a nice olive branch for the fans who've been turned off by the dismantling and subsequent follies of a once-proud organization.

I AM SO SMART, S-M-R-T

Minnesota Wild tough guy Derek Boogaard isn't much for listening. A few days ago he was warned by the NHL to stop leaving the bench to stretch his legs during TV timeouts. Next game, in Toronto, home of the NHL head office, he hops off the bench to stretch his legs and was tagged with a 10-minute misconduct. DOH! ... When the Tampa Bay Lightning get their netminding straightened out, they can address faceoffs. They won just 12 of 47 (26%) Tuesday vs. Atlanta ... Do Czechs just heal slowly or is Wild winger Marian Gaborik using Dominik Hasek's personal therapist? He's been out since Oct. 20 with that groin injury.


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